ST GEORGE – Tuesday, the Dixie Republican Forum hosted a Washington County Attorney candidate debate. The candidates, Nathan Caplin and current County Attorney Brock Belnap, answered questions from the forum and from the crowd.
“I think it is an integral part of how things run in Washington County,” Wade Beatty, attending the debate, said. “While a lot of what they do may be behind the scenes, it is still vitally important.”
Some who attended the debate came with their minds made up for one candidate or the other.
“I met and liked Caplin. He said he was a strict Constitutionalist,” Gloria Tew, St. George resident, said. “I look forward to hearing how he sounds against Belnap.”
The candidates began by introducing themselves.
Caplin said: “The reason I am running is to stand for constitutionalist issues, fight crime, listen to the public and protect traditional values.”
Born in St. George, Caplin now practices law at Barney, McKenna & Olmstead. He has also served as city prosecutor for Hildale City for the last two years.
Belnap said: “Every single day as county attorney I defend the Constitution. The Constitution is something I revere and work to uphold locally.”
Belnap has served the last 11 years as the Washington County Attorney, and before that he represented the county in planning and zoning matters, tax appeals, employment disputes and a variety of civil lawsuits.
The Dixie Republican Forum emailed the list of questions to the candidates before the debate. Each candidate was given two minutes to answer, followed by a one-minute rebuttal.
What is your approach to prosecuting criminal cases, and what principal/policies do you follow?
“The county attorney prosecutes about 3,000 serious crimes each year,” Belnap said. “The County attorney has the power of government to take away the liberty of an individual. That is an awesome responsibility that has to be taken with great care.”
Belnap went on to say that a prosecutor is an administrator of justice whose responsibility it is to find the truth and to do what’s right, including: respecting the constitutional rights of individuals, upholding the rights of victims, making sure evidence is gathered in accordance with the constitution, and proceeding forth with prosecution if it is the right thing to do.
“I am a city prosecutor out in Hildale,” Caplin said. “My philosophy on prosecution is to pursue justice impartially.”
Caplin said he also believes in maintaining the rule of law and that each person be subject to the law equally. “Prosecute with integrity,” he said, “and maintain the integrity of our office.”
How can the county attorney best deal with the federal overreach or unconstitutional federal actions?
I believe the county attorney can be the tip of the spear in defense of our constitutional liberties. If we combine legal preparation, which we are doing a great job of now, but maybe being a little bit more aware of certain issues, and anticipate them as they come down the federal agencies. Before the rule is finalized and more complicated, we combine that tool with unified legal pressure, and I think that will characterize negotiations of our interactions with federal agencies. (Ed. note)
It’s not commonly recognized throughout the United States, Caplin said, but it resonates, it’s not outside the bounds of the Constitution or statutory authority.
“I know it’s bold,” Caplin said of his position, “but I am not going to apologize for that.”
Washington County right now is in a fight, to maintain local control of our roads. We have a lawsuit pending, that my office filed. It’s over 1,000 pages long, which seeks to maintain ownership of backcountry roads. We have spent the last 10 years gathering affidavits, assembling evidence and preparing for this lawsuit. Its groundbreaking, and it’s going to make a difference for our children and grandchildren who want access.
Belnap went on to say that he works every day with the county commissioners to make sure that Washington County land remains its own.
“I have experience fighting these fights,” Belnap said.
Besides Prosecution, and dealing with constitutional issues, what other roles should the county attorney have?
“The county attorney’s role is set out in statue. There is the role of prosecuting crime, then there is the role of giving the county legal advice,” Belnap said.
Belnap said he believes that the county attorney does not establish goals or the course for the commission, the commissioners do. The county attorney is there to advise them in what is legal and what is not.
“We all know when someone tries to expand the boundaries of their office,” Belnap said. “That’s what leads to problems, and things getting out of balance.”
It is on the prosecution side, that the county attorney has policymaking authority. What he was most proud of was the “collaborative nature” he has fostered with the county’s law enforcement agencies. Under his tenure, they have the drug task force, drug court program, mental health court program, and is now starting a veterans court program.
“On civil cases, Caplin said, “the county is the county attorney’s client. It’s not one of a master-servant relationship, it’s one of principal-agent. On he criminal cases, the state is the client, in respect of felonies.”
He has never proposed making policy, Caplin said, nor leading the way on his own. His “proposal is the political will of the elected officials leading the way,” he said, and added that the county attorney also advises the civil agencies. He has to provide accurate, timely, and lawfully legal advice. “I do that in every single day of my life. I advise international companies, I advise businessmen, police officers, and the City Of Hilldale on certain issues.”
What is the proper balance between aggressive prosecution, and respecting the citizen’s right? Where do you stand on self-defense, and defense of property issues?
“I have a great love of law enforcement, I was a bailiff for a couple of years,” Caplin said. “The proper balance is set forth in the Bill of Rights. It’s a restraint on government. Every time one of our police officers upholds the Fourth Amendment, without being told to do so, it strengthens the Constitution. Every time one of our prosecutors allows the defendant to know that his wife doesn’t have to testify against him, that strengths the Constitution. The Bill of Rights tells us what the balance is.”
“Prosecutors help keep our communities safe by holding people accountable appropriately,” Belnap said. “By seeking appropriate penalties, it will help our society grow, and help the individuals involved change productively.”
Belnap said that he felt that defense of person and property are very important.
“My office supports the right to keep and bear arms, and use them in self-defense. I filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court, in the very case that lead to the Supreme Court recognizing the right to bear arms as an individual right.”
After the prepared questions the audience had the chance to ask questions of the candidates that they felt needed to be answered.
The main series of questions facing Caplin pertained to his experience level. He said:
I have only been prosecuting for just under two years. I have not prosecuted myself any felony cases. Usually it’s misdemeanor assaults, and drug possession, as well as minor infractions. I do have a doctorate in Law, but I also have 3 years of specialized education after law school. I passed the bar in both Utah, and in Idaho.”
Belnap faced questions regarding why the City of St George’s code enforcement officers, who searched people’s backyards without search warrants, were not prosecuted. He said:
The county attorney’s office was never presented any cases of code enforcement officers going onto people’s property without search warrants. There was an investigation conducted by our investigator Barry Golding, but because the judge over the code enforcement court is also one of my deputy prosecutors, we decided to put up a Chinese wall to avoid conflict of interest and it was sent away. We do the best we can to be transparent.
When the debate ended, Gloria Tew said: “I found that Brock had the experience and was honorable. Both are good candidates, and I am no longer sure who I will vote for.”
Editors note – CORRECTION made May 22: In a quote by Caplin it appears our reported word “negations” ought to have been “negotiations” and has been so corrected.
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